26 January 2015

Black Gold - the Story of Southern Ethiopia and Coffee

I just watched a well-made documentary about the international coffee industry, focused on Ethiopia as a source: Black Gold. (If in the States, you may be able to watch for free right now on Hulu.com.) The film does an excellent job juxtaposing the coffee farmers living in developing country conditions against the lives of the coffee consumers in developed countries. In some of the cases, the contrast is absurd. Having spent time in Ethiopia, especially the Ethiopian south that one man I traveled with called the "Green Desert," I can say that the conditions are not exaggerated. The story follows a man, Tadesse, who has created a coffee collective, based on the Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia. The Oromo live over a large territory, so the coffee is sourced from several different areas of Ethiopia, but the story that these regions are poor, sometimes in need of food aid, is the same. The consumers are largely oblivious to the chain of people and powers that the coffee must pass through to get in their mugs or take away cups. Why is this the case?

Global markets predict pricing on coffee. Just four multinational companies dominate the $80 billion dollar industry. Familiar names are Kraft, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, and Sara Lee.
In fact, part of the New York Stock Exchange is responsible for price changes on coffee daily. The film states that coffee is the second biggest traded commodity on the market, after oil. Let me say that again. Coffee is the second biggest traded commodity on the market, after oil. The film shows representatives from the multinationals in Ethiopia at a trade and bidding event. The main character in the film is attempting to bypass these multinationals to bring a better price for his farmers. The Ethiopian growers in the film make about $0.10 a kilogram. It is not clear to me if the national government also receives money in this exchange.
Now, it is common that the source of materials, or raw materials, fetch the lowest prices in the chain of goods worldwide. The miners of gold, the growers of coffee, the loggers of trees. There is a cost of getting the raw goods to market in a recognizable form. In the case of coffee though, much of it arrives to the destination as green beans, bagged on location, and shipped. There are large and small roasters in most cities that then supply to stores that grind and brew what goes into our mouths. If you pay $1 or $2 for a CUP of coffee, why can't growers be paid more than 10 cents for a kilogram, why not a $1, why not $10, why not more?

The irony is that developed countries pay out money in taxes and charities to countries such as Ethiopia - to help people who are malnourished or starving or sick because of these conditions. Pay out money to build schools or capacity build governments to build schools and set a curriculum. Pay out money to sponsor a child in a poor community. Pay out money to pay off guilt of living so well while others suffer. I am guilty of this as well. But what if we could change our current system in regard to this - pay out fair wages to raw material growers, gatherers, producers and enable a man and a woman to earn a wage that they can live on and live on well enough to provide their own nutrition, provide their own schools for their communities, provide for medicine? We could probably still enjoy relatively inexpensive cups of coffee while also knowing that whoever grew the coffee was also enjoying their quality of life by making a decent living.

From the film, it is pretty clear that coffee growers should band together and set an international price base from which the traders can then move from. This is a way to benefit while still working in the existing world trade system. Certainly the sensibility around coffee rivals that of wine or scotch in many countries of the world. Where I was just living, the Pacific Northwest, the locals pride themselves on coffee knowledge, how to roast, prepare, pour, and savor high end coffee. Options for fair trade are present and prominent in the stores. Certainly no one would be caught drinking what I grew up on and what people drink from the corner deli in New York City. The coffee on sale, Maxwell House, Folgers, or Chock Full o Nuts is described in this article as "sub-par" and "coffee my parents drank." Don't even imagine real coffee drinkers in the coffee culture of America would drink Nescafe. I have admittedly bought all of these brands in a pinch as an adult. When working a 9 to 5 (or 8 to 6) coffee is just fuel. Maybe on the weekends I can enjoy a more nuanced experience. I cannot even get into the horrors of the American recent obsession with Keurig coffee. For those of you who do not know this wasteful phenomenon, the design of the "Kcup" is to provide one serving worth of coffee (or tea) in a plastic cup that fits into a machine that runs hot water through the cup. The result is a hot beverage to enjoy without mess and clean-up - you just throw the plastic cup in the garbage. Green Mountain Coffee has a facebook page and the company claims to be sustainable - or at least working at it. I have no idea how that is even possible, given the product. Little can be found about sourcing - though I suspect since they are based in Vermont, they are taking advantage of trade agreements with Central America.

Coffee culture is not just a developed world obsession. The places where coffee is grown also enjoy coffee culture. The most amazing coffee I've ever tasted was from simple Ethiopian buna bets when the coffee is roasted on a simple pan over an open small fire, ground, and then put into a long clay necked dispenser, called a jabina, then poured into (rinsed from a jerry can) small tea cups. Buna bets translates roughly to coffee house, but really these are little more than a few stools clustered together in an area on the sidewalk or just off of the main road or walkway, straw or fake grass under foot. The coffee ceremony is a big deal in Ethiopia and a daily routine in some circles. (Ethiopians drink coffee sometimes with butter in it for special guests and times, with salt, sugar, and milk, but most often black (and eat popcorn). And there are plenty of other non-Ethiopian examples.

Do we often think about the sourcing of our special blends and beans besides the exotic names and locations the coffee is coming from? Do we really know what fair trade implies? Are there people like the man in this film opting out of the multinational monopoly and searching for alternatives on behalf of growers? This film gives another view of the coffee industry and how the people that grow and produce the coffee on the supply end participate. The man who runs the cooperative implores coffee drinkers to choose the fair trade option is possible. I have visited coffee farms in Ethiopia and plantations in Laos, PDR. The industry on the source end employs many people, but these people are mainly the very poor. In Laos, there are plantation owners who run their business like a winery tasting room, complete with manicured grounds, full food menus, festivals. But those working in the plantations bore the look of poverty. I'd really like to see more coverage of growers where they live and what the situation is in other parts of the world that bring me my favorite daily beverage.

16 January 2015

China To Deploy Troops to South Sudan - First Time Involvement on the Continent

China is deploying peacekeeping troops to South Sudan, as reported by Reuters today (see below). This was reported back in September by Reuters and then picked up by the Wall Street Journal as an event happening, and then December as something upcoming by the New York Times, but I missed it (see article from the NY Times December blog below the Reuters article). This is the first deployment of troops by China to the African continent, so this is a significant event. Judging from the wealth of speculative reporting and false announcements, China is not being very clear about when, what type, and how many troops are deploying. Given what I know about China and information, from fellow researchers who have worked there, this is normal.

China's economic and development involvement in many African countries has been going on for decades - stepped up in recent years due to their overflowing current accounts (due in large part to the USA and Europe buying Chinese made stuff). I've eluded to Howard French's book on China in Africa previously, and would highly recommend a read of this book to familiarize with one person's take on the extent of Chinese presence in several, not all of course, African countries. (If you can stomach his blatant prejudice descriptions of people...) I remember a course I took a decade ago at the State Department that suggested there were 30+ economic zones in different African cities - think Chinatowns. The course was taught by Deborah Brautigam - you can read her extensive scholarship on the subject, as I recall she was unabashedly pro-China's presence and involvement in African development, citing a case of a hair dryer emergency in Nigeria, but I wont get into specifics. She also keeps an active, and well trafficked, blog called China in Africa: The Real Story, that covers current and related issues from around the continent. Dr. Brautigan has a place of researcher's voice looking at the entire picture, however most people are critics of the involvement. With this deployment, I'd say that China is stepping into an entirely new role and a natural progression of its place in the global arena. The landmark moment of modern China, many have suggested, started with the monumental Three Gorges Dam, which I've referred to in previous blogs on dams.

China's interest in South Sudan? Oil of course. Some speculate that at some point during the Sudan 25 year conflict, China received at least 65% of all petroleum products from Sudan. It has also been suggested that China was supplying weapons in exchange for the petroleum, keeping the actual numbers off of the books, fueling the conflict further. China has made similar bartering deals throughout the African continent - trading oil rights for development projects like roads and buildings (hospitals, schools), as cited in the Council on Foreign Affairs pages. Though China was, as well as Russia, known to supply weapons during the conflict, the link to oil is tenuous. Now, it appears that China has changed direction and would like to help restore peace in South Sudan, and secure their interests, though this is not an abnormal motivation for foreign troop involvement in a war-torn country. South Sudan's establishment as a state has been largely a USA project, though not altogether successful (to say the least). In this way, South Sudan may set a precedent for China and the US, the two present world superpowers, to work together toward responding to international unrest (as opposed to the typically useless UN deployments).

How do you think this will go?

Chinese peacekeepers start deployment in South Sudan

JUBA Fri Jan 16, 2015 10:07am EST


(Reuters) - An advanced party of Chinese peacekeepers is in South Sudan and the rest of the 700-strong contingent is due to arrive by early April, a U.N. official said on Friday, part of a surge in a U.N. mission to protect civilians in a nation mired in conflict.
Fighting in the oil-producing nation, which is one of the world's poorest, has killed more than 10,000 people, driven more than a million from their homes and left many without enough food.
"We had an advanced party of 18 members of the incoming battalion arrive on Jan. 9 to begin preparations for delivery of contingent-owned equipment," said Brian Kelly, an spokesman for the U.N. mission in South Sudan UNMISS.
He said some of the equipment had already landed in Entebbe, in neighboring Uganda.
"Overall deployment of the 700-stong Chinese infantry battalion and its equipment will take more than two months to complete," he said, adding 180 troops would be in Juba by the end of February with 520 more arriving by late March or early April.
China is a major investor in South Sudan's oil industry.
Fighting erupted in December 2013 in South Sudan, which won independence from Sudan in 2011, after months of political tension between President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy and political rival, Riek Machar.
The conflict has reopened deep tensions among ethnic groups, pitting Kiir's Dinka against Machar's Nuer.
Some of the worst fighting in the nation of 11 million people has been in Jonglei state and the two oil producing states of Unity and Upper Nile.
Linda Etim, USAID deputy assistant administrator for affairs, said on Friday nearly half of the population in those three areas was projected to face a food security emergency.
"The malnutrition situation is classified as critical or very critical in more than half of the country," she said.
Although the warring parties have agreed to ceasefires -- the first deal reached in January 2014, a month after fighting erupted -- the deals have been regularly flouted. Fighting has picked up after a lull during rains that ended late last year.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the peacekeepers were "in the process of gradually being deployed," without giving more detail.

(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Nairobi and Michael Martina in Beijing; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

China to Send Its First Infantry Troops to U.N. Mission in South Sudan

Civilians in a United Nations-run camp for internally displaced persons in Juba, South Sudan. China plans to contribute its first infantry troops to the U.N. peacekeeping force in South Sudan next month.Credit Nichole Sobecki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
China’s first infantry contribution to a United Nations peacekeeping force will depart for South Sudan in January, the state news media has reported.
The move is widely seen as a sign of greater Chinese commitment to United Nations peacekeeping efforts and of Beijing’s wishes to step up protection of its commercial interests in the country.
The Chinese battalion includes 121 officers and 579 enlisted soldiers, the state-run news agency Xinhua reported on Monday. A first contingent is scheduled to arrive in South Sudan in January, and the rest will follow in March. The battalion will be equipped with drones, antitank missiles and other weapons “completely for self-defense purposes,” Xinhua quoted the unit’s commander, Wang Zhen, as saying.
“The 700 Chinese troops will be based in the national capital of Juba” and the surrounding state of Central Equatoria, Joseph Contreras, a spokesman for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, said in emailed comments on Monday.
South Sudan remains one of the world’s most troubled regions as fighting between the forces of President Salva Kiir and the former vice president, Riek Machar, has killed and displaced thousands of people, as well as threatened the country’s economic lifeline, oil.
Since the outbreak of violence in December 2013, diplomats have pointed to increasingly active Chinese diplomacy to broker a cease-fire. China’s Ministry of National Defense first confirmed the planned deployment of the battalion in September. It will reinforce the 10,262 military peacekeepers currently stationed in South Sudan, who include infantry forces from India, Kenya and Ethiopia.
Of the dozens of countries that have contributed peacekeeping forces, however, China is the only one with major commercial interests at stake.
The state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation, the country’s largest oil and gas producer, has invested billions of dollars since the 1990s in what are now South Sudanese oil fields. Before fighting disrupted production, those oil fields provided a rapidly developing China with about 5 percent of its imported oil.
China’s concern regarding South Sudan is not energy security per se, “but rather a corporate investment from a major Chinese national oil company in jeopardy,” Luke Patey, the author of “The New Kings of Crude: China, India and the Global Struggle for Oil in Sudan and South Sudan,” said in an interview.
“Since the conflict shut down half of its production, now roughly at 160,000 barrels per day, China only receives 1 percent of its oil imports from South Sudan,” he said.
The country’s main oil fields, and Chinese investments, are concentrated in states north of Central Equatoria, where the battalion is expected to be deployed. However, United Nations peacekeeping forces in South Sudan do now have a responsibility to protect employees of oil fields, after lobbying from China with support from other countries, the magazine Foreign Policy reportedlast summer. China also initially wanted peacekeepers to be deployed in the country’s northern states, according to the magazine.
In May, the United Nations Security Council changed the mandate of its peacekeeping mission from a focus on nation-building to the protection of civilians and ending civil strife. The new mandate, which has since been extended, included the first “mention of oil industry workers as civilians who might warrant protection” by the force, Mr. Contreras said.
China’s deployment of this battalion “runs parallel with its interest in ensuring billions of its oil investments in South Sudan stay out of harm’s way,” Mr. Patey, the author, said, adding that the South Sudanese government also wants United Nations peacekeepers to protect the country’s most vital economic assets.
On Monday, C.N.P.C. announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with South Sudan’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mining to increase oil production in three oil exploration and production blocks, a move that “further deepens China-South Sudan oil cooperation,” the company said.
But Mr. Patey said the agreement was “a long-term goal,” rather than a concrete plan. It would require “large amounts of investment which undoubtedly will not start to flow into South Sudan until the civil war comes to an end,” he said.
China has contributed personnel for United Nations peacekeeping forces since the 1990s, including sending engineering, security and medical personnel to South Sudan. This will be the first time it has sent an infantry battalion, a step its foreign minister has suggested is in line with China’s expanding participation in peacekeeping.
In a speech at the United Nations headquarters in New York in September, Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke of a greater role for China.
In addition to its first deployment of an infantry battalion, China is “considering” making helicopters and, for the first time, air force personnel available, Mr. Wang said.

08 January 2015

BBC Story About Gibe III and Ethiopia's Push Toward Modernization

I read a story in the BBC news about Ethiopia that a friend forwarded to me. The headline, "The People Pushed out of Ethiopia's Fertile Farmland" immediately drew my attention. I have pasted the article below for you to read. The author it seems really wanted a scoop and shamelessly ployed local police with rum to get it...and talks himself up in his publication in the BBC news. He could just as easily have told the story straight, left his part of the story out of it - I expected to read about the Mursi. The article is filled with eye catching photographs of the exotic body decorations, but lacks the complex voice of the Mursi.

Ethiopia is modernizing across the board. The unique ethnic groups that persist in the Jinka region, as well as in other pockets of remote areas throughout the country are all in jeopardy of losing their identities as modernity marches on. This is not a novel event - this is what happened in Canada, countries in Europe, Argentina, China, Australia...we know what happens - take a person's land for profit, and turn them out to different land to make a new way of life. Indigenous groups around the world have just gone the way of the Dodo. Mostly in silence. This is STILL happening in the United States with the indigenous peoples, the Native Americans. Indigenous way of life is under threat and every time we lose a language, an oral tradition, a custom, a joke, a skill contained within these diverse communities, we lose ourselves and the important pieces that add to the story of a complex and beautiful planet.

The story here should not be some journalist giving the Ethiopian authorities the slip - the story had the opportunity to talk about the landscape, the people, what is there and then the contrasting future...

The push for modernity is considered a form of dignity - as the only way for countries to be taken seriously. I don't believe that this push is from some menacing ideas of government officials who don't care about their people - quite the opposite - the officials who sell off land to the highest bidder, who disallow citizens to practice bush medicine or speak native tongues...they want to see modern medicine, safe drinking water, available schools for their people. They just have a funny and intolerant and insensitive manner of accomplishing this. I would challenge though, that how governments in developing countries today are going about modernizing is exactly the Western model - the precedent that development agencies and donors have promoted - systematizing agriculture, moving communities to places where they can get services, supplanting field educations with classroom educations...

I don't agree with this modern progress movement in its current form. I think we can do better collectively as a global community. I am alarmed at the possible loss of knowledge and dignity of peoples who happen to live in a particular political jurisdiction - wherever that modern march is snuffing out diverse and alternative ways of life. But I don't in my mind frame the government and the authorities as buffoons, drunks, and sinister. This is too easy to do - people are flawed. They are just people too, doing what they understand to be correct - and more than not, toward the end of a benefit somehow to someone.

I wish this journalist had focused on the greater story - there is so much to be told here - so much to capture before it is gone. He could have elevated the voices of the Mursi beyond this simple statement of disempowerment. People have agency, and I don't imagine that the people in these unique ethnic groups feel powerless against some government scheme. In fact, there have been murders associated with the land grabs. Maybe that is why the journalist needed special permits. Maybe next time he will take the time to get the right paperwork in order.

The people pushed out of Ethiopia's fertile farmland

A young Mursi woman with a traditional plate in her lip
The construction of a huge dam in Ethiopia and the introduction of large-scale agricultural businesses has been controversial - finding out what local people think can be hard, but with the help of a bottle of rum nothing is impossible.
After waiting several weeks for letters of permission from various Ethiopian ministries, I begin my road trip into the country's southern lowlands.
I want to investigate the government's controversial plan to take over vast swathes of ancestral land, home to around 100,000 indigenous pastoralists, and turn it into a major centre for commercial agriculture, where foreign agribusinesses and government plantations would raise cash crops such as sugar and palm oil.
After driving 800km (497 miles) over two days through Ethiopia's lush highlands I begin my descent into the lower Omo valley. Here, where palaeontologists have discovered some of the oldest human remains on earth, some ancient ways of life cling on.

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Some tourists can be found here seeking a glimpse of an Africa that lives in their imagination. But the government's plan to "modernise" this so-called "backward" area has made it inaccessible for journalists.
As my jeep bounces down into the valley, I watch as people decorated in white body paint and clad in elaborate jewellery made from feathers and cow horn herd their cows down the dusty track.
I arrive late in the afternoon at a village I won't name, hoping to speak to some Mursi people - a group of around 7,000 famous for wearing huge ornamental clay lip plates.
Mursi woman with lip plate
The Mursi way of life is in jeopardy. They are being resettled to make way for a major sugar plantation on their ancestral land - so ending their tradition of cattle herding.
Meanwhile, a massive new dam upstream will reduce the Omo River, ending its seasonal flood - and the food crops they grow on its banks.
It is without doubt one of the most sensitive stories in Ethiopia and one the government is keen to suppress.
Human rights groups have repeatedly criticised schemes like this, alleging that locals are being abused and coerced into compliance.
I'd spoken to local senior officials in the provincial capital of Jinka, before travelling into the remote savannah.
The suspicion is palpable as the chief of the south Omo zone lectures me. Local people and the area's reputation have been greatly harmed by the negative reports by foreigners, he says.
Eventually a frank exchange takes place and I secure verbal permission to report on the changes taking place in the valley.
The Gibe III Dam
The Omo valley, 2012The Omo River
  • Situated approximately 300km south-west of the capital Addis Ababa, the dam is 246m high
  • Work started in July 2006 and was estimated to take 118 months (nearly 10 years)
  • The government says it will provide much needed-power and help develop the country's economy
  • Authorities say no-one has been forced from their home
It seems prudent to let the Mursi tribe and attendant police warm to my presence before I start asking questions. After all, I have the whole evening.
But a brief chat with the tribe ends abruptly with the entrance of a police officer, wearing a replica Manchester United football shirt, vehemently waving a dog-eared copy of the country's constitution.
I am prohibited from talking to anyone and must immediately climb back into my jeep, drive back up the mountain and return to Jinka, he says.
As often in Ethiopia, he doesn't explain exactly why.
I object to driving through the wilderness at dusk on safety grounds and so a compromise is reached: I will pitch my hammock outside the police station, a short stroll away from the village, with armed guards watching my every move.
The political boss of the zone comes on the two-way radio. "This is house arrest," I protest. "No, just a misunderstanding," he replies.
A Mursi person in Ethiopia
The prospect of returning home without interviews is unthinkable. My ruse is to distract my captors.
I sit them down for a meal of pasta and vegetables - and brimming beakers of spiced rum - in front of my laptop, which is playing an Ethiopian comedy.
After saying good night I strike out through the scrubland.
I run without sense of direction through bush and bog, crawl under fences, and negotiate large herds of noisy cattle. I have to find a village elder I met earlier, and interview him before policemen and their flashlights turn up.
So I am relieved to stumble on two boys milking their cows in the moonlight. They lead me to the elder's hut. The sound of so many rudely-awakened animals in our wake fills me with dread that searchlights are heading our way.
The moment arrives. I squat in front of the elder inside his mud dwelling, surrounded by his sleeping companions: several cows, a goat and a cat. My dictaphone is poised to record truths heard by few journalists in this media-muzzled region.
I ask him in broken Amharic what is going on. He tells me: "The government is telling us to sell our cattle and modernise like townspeople - they say our land is the property of the sugar corporation. We have not been asked what we want or need.
"If we do not accept the resettlement plans, we'll be taken to jail. How can we survive if we have no access to land, cattle or water?"
I promptly thank the elder for his time, apologise for disrupting his evening and head back to my open-air jail.
On reaching my hammock I find several dozing policemen and an empty bottle of rum. Mission accomplished.
The Mursi people
Mursi people
  • About 10,000 Mursi people live in Ethiopia
  • Traditionally insert pottery plates known as debhinya in the lower lips of young women
  • They live in an area surrounded by the rivers Mara, Omo and Mago, which flow into Lake Turkana
  • Mursi territory was incorporated into Ethiopia during the reign of King Menelik II in the 19th Century